EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (KMSP) - On Feb. 7 of 2014, 11 officers responded to a police chase turned standoff on Highway 212 in Eden Prairie. Four officers fired shots at Matthew Serbus, who died after the second volley of shots. And one officer fired at Dawn Pfister, who also died.
A grand jury cleared the officers, but the family for Pfister believes the one officer who shot the 34-year-old woman was in the wrong. And they believe video supports their argument.
While the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) released video of the moments leading up to the shooting, Pfister’s family, through their attorney, provided Fox 9 with the video of the actual shooting — as seen from two different dash cameras (one with sound, one without sound).
The incident began as a police chase. Officers received reports of a car involved in a hit and run, and drivers called 911 complaining about a reckless driver. Inside the car were Pfister and Serbus. The car was stolen and its hood was up. The pair eventually crashed into a wall.
At first, no one emerged from the car. But eventually, Serbus came out, and then, so did Pfister. However, Serbus’s hands were on Pfister. It was difficult to tell exactly what was happening, but eventually an officer concluded it was a hostage situation, saying into his radio, “looks to be a hostage situation.” However, an attorney for the officer who would shoot Pfister, wrote in a legal filing that the pair “danced together and then exchanged a kiss.”
While the incident unfolded, one officer is heard saying “show me your hands sir; nobody wants you to die right now. You’re gonna though.” As the pair moves, standing and tangled together, Serbus waves his hand and a single shot is heard. An officer says “get down” and Pfister complies, but then either is pulled up or gets back up.
About ten seconds later, officers realize Serbus is holding a knife, and an officer is heard saying, “It’s a knife, he’s got a knife.” Shortly after that, officers worry Serbus may be stabbing or harming Pfister, one officer yelling, “don’t do that to her!” Another officer says, “I gotta drop him guys.”
Shots are fired.
As shots broke out, a semi-circle of eleven officers — seven with pistols and four with rifles — surrounded Serbus and Pfister. Several shots are heard, and several seconds pass before Serbus and Pfister fall to the ground. At this point, only Serbus had been struck by bullets.
On the ground, Pfister takes the knife from Serbus, and an officer is heard saying, “suspect down, she’s holding knife.” One police officer, Officer Brady Juell, of the Chaska Police Department, shoots and kills Pfister, who was struck by four bullets. Four officers then shoot and kill Serbus, who appears to be grabbing back the knife and standing up.
Hostage or Threat?
Pfister’s family believes Juell shot her while she was trying to escape her hostage-taker and get the knife away from him. But Juell told a BCA investigator that he believed Pfister was coming at the officers with the knife.
In an interview with the BCA, Juell said, “And she’s got the meanest, angriest look on her face…And she looked up at us and she started comin’ up at us. She posted her arm and she started comin’ up at us with that knife and I, I knew right then and there she’s gonna try and kill us with that knife. And she had this knife in her hand and she came up at us and I knew I was the only one with the rifle and I knew how [Serbus] acted drugged out, wasn’t going down. I thought she was gonna be the same.”
But Bob Bennett, the attorney for Pfister’s family, believes Pfister was simply trying escape the man holding her hostage, and he believes the actions of the other officers prove it, telling Fox 9 the video “shows ten officers had clear lines of sight and the ability to shoot, and didn’t shoot the woman hostage.”
Pfister’s family filed a lawsuit against Officer Juell and the city of Chaska. Bennett says he has no problems with the actions of the officers who shot at Serbus, who Bennett believes was a genuine threat.
Joe Dutton, a use of force expert who defends officers, reviewed the video for Fox 9, and said he could see why the officer shot her: she had the knife and appeared to be getting back on her feet.
The BCA & the Video
The BCA, the state agency tasked with providing independent investigations of deadly police shootings, handled the investigation for the Highway 212 shooting. But Bennett, a prominent civil rights attorney, believes the BCA “ignored” the video — calling the agency’s investigation a “shield” rather than “sword.”
In a deposition of a senior special agent, Bennett asked, “did you look at the videotape evidence before the shooters were interviewed?” The agent answered, “I looked at it after I conducted the interviews.” Bennett followed up by asking, “so basically you take these officers’ statements about what they perceived at complete face value?” The agent answered, “yes.” Bennett believes the agent would have benefited from watching the video before the interviews because “they would use the video evidence to contradict and say to the witness, ‘I know you’re lying, we can see you’re lying on the videotape.’”
“I've certainly learned you cannot reliably trust the BCA to investigate officer involved shootings or other conduct impartially. And I don't know what the answer to that is. That needs to be dealt with systematically at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension,” Bennett told Fox 9.
However, Susan Gaertner, former Ramsey County attorney, told Fox 9 she has faith in the BCA’s independence. “Obviously, independence is in the eye of the beholder. And no matter who is investigating, no matter what law enforcement entity was investigating, someone is going to say they protect their own. That doesn't mean it's true.”
BCA Statement to Fox 9
“The BCA is an independent fact finder and does not decide or determine the outcome of a case. The BCA conducts conflict investigations in the same way it does all investigations. BCA agents interview witnesses and the people involved in the incident; collect, analyze and review evidence; and conduct follow-up interviews as needed to ultimately find all of the facts of a case. The agency involved in the incident has no input regarding the investigative direction of the case. As it does in all investigations, the BCA then presents its findings without recommendations to a county attorney who can choose to review the findings or impanel a grand jury.”
Attorney for Chaska & Officer Juell Response to Fox 9
"The jurors heard all of the witnesses' testimony, reviewed all of the physical evidence, and they even had the opportunity to ask the witnesses questions...Video evidence can be critical to helping investigations, but, as was the case here, since the video does not show what Officer Juell actually saw during this rapidly evolving and very tense situation, the grand jury turned to his testimony and the testimony of the other officers at the scene in choosing not to indict him.”
RAW VIDEOS: Watch unedited raw videos below of the shootings of Serbus and Pfister (WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT):